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Think that’s a glamorous hat? Think again. As a “boutique” (small, custom, picky) publisher, I wear this hat often, and at first glance it may seem to give power and appeal. Over time, though, it brings me to my knees.
With my acquisitions editor hat on I must make decisions to enter into contractual agreements with writers based on perceptions and best guesses. First impressions of an author or manuscript are subjective. I may like the person, writing, or idea based on personal preferences and interests or their persuasiveness and ability to engage me with their written expression.
If an author/book idea crosses that first threshold, it must then hold up under business scrutiny. Tough questions should be asked, analysis and forecasting applied. Is there enough demand for a book like this? If so, can we and the author reach the market for this book? Is it well written, engaging, and unique enough to compete with similar books? If it will catch the wind and begin to float, is the author ready and able to sail with it? Is this project financially feasible? Does it really fit in Cladach’s niche of literary waters?
If we answer too many questions “No” or “We don’t know,” and this process shoots too many holes in the potential project, it will sink before it starts with us. What we don’t want is to prepare a book, like a boat, to launch upon a sea of published books only to watch it sink. This has happened.
With some projects we know that we are testing the waters and risking storms at sea, but we believe in an author or project so much that we are willing take the risks. If we do that too often, though, we cannot stay in this business/ministry.
Some book projects we take on with excitement, but the sales peter out. Others catch wind in their sails and continue to sell week after week, month after month, year after year. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that the following factors make a difference:
- What other titles has the author published? For instance, if his other titles are poorly-edited self-published books, this author’s reputation may suffer and hinder potential sales of the title we have carefully edited.
- How actively connected is the author with the book’s prospective audience—even before she is published?
- Is there a waiting audience/demand for this book?
- Does the author have an ongoing means of reaching that audience? And is it an audience Cladach reasonably can reach out to?
- Is the author’s personal life—including health, relationships, and finances—in order?
In my mind this begs the question: “As a writer, when are you ready to have your book published?”
Writers who feel they have something to say and long to be published authors, tend to become impatient. Your preparations to publish involve much more than finishing a manuscript and writing an effective book proposal. You need also to:
- Find/identify/make connections with/get to know the audience for you and your book. (Start this ongoing process, in fact, even before you write the manuscript.)
- Get your finances in order. It costs to publish and market effectively, even when you publish with a traditional, (large, small, or micro) royalty publisher.
- Resolve, as far as you can, personal issues. Working as a published author takes time, energy, commitment, and the support of people around you.
As my mother used to say, “Work as if everything depends on you. Pray as if everything depends on God.” And that again brings me to my knees in the uncertain but enticing waters of acquiring book rights and taking publishing risks.
As I said in the previous post this is my most difficult publisher hat to wear:
I receive queries and proposals daily, both through email and snail mail. This publisher’s hat may seem glamorous, and I admit to a certain curiosity and gambler’s hope that in the slush pile I may discover the “next bestseller”—but, alas, I must say “No, thank you” to the vast majority of author queries.
So, you may ask: what makes me say “Yes” to an author’s book proposal?
First of all, the first sentence of the query letter must “grab” me with this writer’s giftedness, creativity, and unique slant on the subject. I barely have time to read unsolicited queries, so if you start out with the impersonal, boring, and obvious, I probably won’t even finish reading it. For instance, please don’t start (as many do) with, “Dear Editor, I’m writing to you in hopes that you will publish my book …” I already know that! Dive right into the gist of your passion, message, and/or quest—as any good nonfiction book or novel does. For instance, here are the first sentences of a query letter that recently grabbed my attention:
This story does not begin on the day Spring-baby Westbay throws a rock at Amen: a simple-looking donkey who knew Adam and Noah, Abraham and Moses, Jesus Christ, the Apostle John, Saint Francis of Assisi. Nor does the story begin when Spring-baby’s father jilts her by dying far away from home and rebuke. The story begins in the beginning – when death itself comes into the world and initiates its nefarious plot against Spring-baby’s dad amongst countless others.
Gadly Plain (a novel of 59,000 words told from an omniscient point of view) follows the struggle of a twelve year old girl as she grapples with one of life’s most mind-wrenching questions: Is death really the end? …
Not surprisingly, I kept reading this one to the end, then asked for sample chapters, then just had to read the entire novel, then offered J. Michael Dew a contract. And voilà! the first literary novel in Cladach’s fiction line was born:
Okay, there were a few other steps to the acquisition process. The manuscript was sent to a few readers whose input I value, and their responses were positive. I then had several phone conversations with the author. We negotiated a royalty contract. But the process started with those first few sentences hooking my interest.
I must add, though, that I have received some amazingly-written queries/proposals that caused me to ask for the manuscript with great expectancy only to be disappointed that the writing of the book did not match the quality of the professionally-prepared proposal. At writers conferences and from freelance editors and book doctors you can get help writing a proposal that will blow off the publisher’s socks and whet their appetite with tasty tidbits, making them want to express mail a contract offer to you. But the manuscript that follows had better offer real meat to chew on, flavor in every bite, and new taste twists presented on the plate in a memorable way.